Texas Man Sued for Defamation by Fracking Company that Contaminated his Water Supply

Texas Man Sued for Defamation by Fracking Company that Contaminated his Water Supply

A Weatherford, Texas resident is facing a $3 million defamation lawsuit by Ft. Worth fracking company Range Resources. In 2011, Steve Lipsky exposed the company for contaminating his water supply with methane and benzene, DeSmog Blog reports.

In 2010, Lipsky discovered that he could light his well water on fire after the company that drilled the well came to determine why it wasn’t working properly. Peck’s Well Service found gas building up inside the well and lit Lipsky’s water on fire to demonstrate the problem. At that time, the company installed a vent to allow some of the gas to escape.

Lipsky checked the Texas Railroad Commission’s website and found that two natural gas wells run practically beneath his home. He hired an environmental consultant to test his water, along with an investigator from the Railroad Commission. Lipsky’s water “effervesced like Alka-Seltzer,” according to the Dallas Observer. Test results found the water had been polluted by nearby fracking operations.

For months prior, Lipsky had felt as if something wasn’t right. He often felt nauseated and fatigued. At times he feared he had cancer. He testified that his submersible pump would sputter and cough and struggled to fill their 5,000-gallon holding tank. Lipsky first showed local Fire Marshall Shawn Scott that his water was flammable. Scott and his assistant fire marshall decided to measure the amount of gas coming from the well.

“We got within 20 feet of that well and the hydrocarbon detector was going bonkers, full indication,” Scott told the Observer. “I couldn’t get any closer because you risk burning up the sensors. This is open air. It’s not like we were in a house.”

Scott used another monitor to gauge the gas concentration and found that it measured 12 to 14 percent instantly – within the explosive range. “Anything above 5 percent, we start getting nervous,” Scott said.

Worried for the safety of his family, Lipsky ultimately shut off the well and began trucking in water at an average cost of $1,000 a month. He sued Range Resources after an extremely rare order was issued by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Water Drinking Act, determining that Range Resources’ nearby fracking operations had contaminated Lipsky’s well and engendered the health of his family.

Range Resources immediately counter-sued Lipsky for defamation, claiming that he deceived the public by posting a video to YouTube in which he lights his water on fire. The presiding judge, Trey Loftin, dismissed Lipsky’s claims citing lack of jurisdiction and allowed the defamation suit to proceed.

Loftin later recused himself from the case after his bias emerged in one of his reelection campaign fliers, which stated, “The EPA, using falsified evidence provided by a liberal activist environmental consultant, accused and fined a local gas driller of contaminating wells.”

Range Resources also sued the EPA and, after a year of litigation, the agency withdrew their emergency order that stated the company had contaminated the Lipskys’ well and jeopardized their health. The withdrawal hurt the Lipskys’ case, although the EPA never retracted their findings that proved the company contaminated the Lipskys’ well.

In February 2011, Range Resources sent Lipsky a letter saying that his air and water were safe. The company produced a set of test results showing that there was no gas in Lipsky’s well. In September 2013, private testing by Duke University measured the gas coming out of his well at 162,000 parts per million (ppm). Air samples taken above the water well vent measured levels exceeding 900,000 ppm. 50,000 ppm is considered a potential explosion level.

Lipsky is now working with an attorney to ask the Texas Supreme Court to dismiss Range Resource’s claims of defamation and business disparagement. He continues to face legal expenses as well as the expense of trucking in drinking water, now that his water supply has been contaminated. Julie Dermansky of DeSmog Blog notes,

In a culture where the oil and gas industry spends millions on PR campaigns and hires representatives with military backgrounds in psychological operations to intimidate private citizens, where regulatory agencies and scientists risk harassment when their results are not ’industry friendly’, where lawyers don’t want to take on clients who have cases against industry for fear of losing business with energy producers, and where industry campaign contributions taint politicians and judges all the way up the ladder, how many people will fight back as staunchly as Steve Lipsky has?

Americans across the country face situations similar to Lipsky and his neighbors. Many are prevented from going public about their water contamination when they are forced to settle with fracking companies in order to be able to receive drinkable water or relocate. In August, a Pennsylvania family was issued a gag order by Range Resources after a $750,000 settlement agreement.

The Hallowich family of Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania accused the company of putting their children’s health in danger. Their property was located near four gas wells, a fracking wastewater pond, and gas compressor stations. The family agreed to settle in order to be able to afford to move to a new home away from the “natural” gas extraction operations that put their family in danger.

During the proceedings, Range Resources attorney James Swetz indicated that the gag order included the Hallowich’s two young children. “I guess our position is, it does apply to the whole family. We would certainly enforce it,” he told the court.

After news of the company’s attorney forcing a gag order on two minors became public knowledge, Range Resources issued a statement saying that it did not agree with its attorney’s remarks. The company further said that there was no evidence that fracking operations affected the Hallowich family.

Photo via: DeSmog Blog ©2013 Julie Dermansky

Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. Follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.

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